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Site Profile: Lac La Biche Mission

Roman Catholic Mission, Lac la Biche, 1916 - 1920

In 1798 David Thompson established a fur trade post at Lac la Biche for the North West Company (NWC). The post was located there because Lac la Biche Portage offered a connection between the Saskatchewan and Athabasca River systems - in other words between the Hudson Bay and Arctic Ocean watersheds. The strategic location of his post brought competition from the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) soon after. Peter Fidler established Greenwich House for the HBC in 1799 near Thompson's post. It was an interesting juxtaposition of two of the more famous fur traders and the greatest map-makers of the fur trade.

Several posts were built and then abandoned at Lac La Biche in the years up to 1823, but the area was perhaps most significant for the group of Métis who settled there and formed a more or less permanent community. They hunted and trapped on their own accounts and some also engaged in some trade of their own acquiring furs from different First Nations groups for resale to the HBC. Various Catholic missionaries visited Lac La Biche over the years and even though the HBC had closed its post in 1823 Father Lacombe thought a mission might be established there. The presence of a Methodist mission nearby at Whitefish Lake made this seem even more important.

Metis New Year's Day celebration at Lac la Biche, Alberta, 1895. Frederick Remmington, artist. From The HBC re-opened their post there in 1852-53, and in the spring of 1853 Father Remas started a mission there as well. The mission would later be officially named Notre-Dame-des-Victoires. The first site chosen for the mission was not entirely suitable so in 1855 a new site on a bay north and west of the current Town of Lac La Biche was chosen. By 1856 a small mission community was in place.

In addition to serving the local Métis and Cree populations, the mission at Lac La Biche had a practical value as well. It served as a warehouse and transportation centre for Oblate missions throughout northern Alberta and what would become the North West Territories. In addition to the water routes and portage connecting the Saskatchewan and Athabasca River systems, cart trails connected Lac La Biche with the main cart trails stretching from Fort Garry to Fort Edmonton across the plains. A farm and other enterprises were also established there to help sustain the mission.

By the 1860s Notre-Dame-Des-Victoires was a reasonably flourishing mission settlement. The farm operation produced enough that excess flour and other food could be sent to less fortunate missions. The mission also played a vital role in freighting and storing goods destined for more remote missions. Much like the system in use for fur trade posts, missions too needed depots and warehouses to store goods being shipped inland to more distant posts. In addition to its Oblate priests a group of Grey Nuns arrived in 1862. Shortly afterwards a day school was opened at the mission. The community around the mission also continued to grow with more and more families taking up land around the lake.

View of the Athabasca RiverBy the 1880s the sheer volume of goods being moved through Notre-Dame-Des-Victoires mission was straining the system. More and more often goods had to be left behind because there was no room for them on the carts, boats and barges that handled the mission shipping. The arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in Calgary in 1883 offered a lower cost alternative of getting goods west before carts took them north to Edmonton. This new route could bypass Lac La Biche and by about 1900 most gods for the northern missions travelled to Edmonton and then on to Athabasca Landing before being shipped north instead.

View of modern day Athabasca LandingWith its transportation duties lessened the mission concentrated instead on providing spiritual, educational and other services to the local Métis and First nations communities. By the 1870s the day school had expanded to include a residence allowing taking of boarders. For example, in 1871 16 children were living at the Mission and taking classes there while 5 day students also attended school there. With some ups and downs the school continued to grow and it was operated until 1963. Another interesting activity of the mission was publishing. In 1877 Emile Grouard brought syllabic type and a small printing press back from Europe and the mission became a centre for publishing religious materials in Cree and Chipewyan syllabics. The mission published some of the first books published in what would become Alberta.

The mission offers an interesting reflection on the evolution of communities in northern Alberta. Though it had been started to serve the interests of the fur trade, Lac La Biche evolved into a small struggling mission - located there because of the Métis and First Nations families who settled around the lake because of its strategic location in the fur trade. The mission grew beyond simple evangelical work to offer schooling and other services - including a publishing business, a grist mill and freighting services. Although outside the current boundaries of the modern town of Lac La Biche it really was the foundation of that community.

The Métis celebrations at Lac la Biche were recently featured in Alberta Connections, the Alberta Community Development's magazine and posted on Alberta Heritage Online. Read it here!

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